Imagine his dismay

Carlos Fraenkel

  • Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie
    Cape, 286 pp, £18.99, September 2015, ISBN 978 1 910702 03 1

Salman Rushdie’s latest novel is a version of The Arabian Nights – two years, eight months and 28 nights adds up to 1001 of them. But it’s updated in every way. The climax, set in present-day New York, is an apocalyptic battle between reason and unreason, good and evil, light and darkness, with all the bells and whistles of a Hollywood blockbuster – X-Men, The Avengers, Star Wars, to name a few of the movies and comic books Rushdie nods to. Rushdie’s stand-in for Scheherazade is, of all people, the great 12th-century Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd, better known in the West as Averroes, a commentator on Aristotle and one of the last representatives of falsafa – the grand philosophical tradition of medieval Islam – in Muslim Spain. In Rushdie’s retelling, Ibn Rushd’s commitment to ‘reason, logic and science’ got him into trouble with the ‘Berber fanatics who were spreading like a pestilence across Arab Spain’. They ‘disgraced’ him ‘on account of his liberal ideas’ and ‘burned’ his writings. The clash between reason and fanaticism – mostly of the Muslim variety, though Catholic bigotry and Hindu nationalism are sniffed at as well – is at the heart of the novel; fanaticism, with its punishing God, is for Rushdie (quoting the inscription on an etching by Goya) the monster that ‘fantasy’ breeds when ‘abandoned by reason’.

The story begins in 1195, when, after a distinguished career as chief judge of Sevilla, and then as physician to the caliph in Córdoba, the seat of the caliphate in Muslim Spain, Ibn Rushd finds himself exiled in ‘the small village of Lucena’. There he hooks up with a pretty 16-year-old girl, one of (or so he thinks) the town’s crypto-Jews who’d been forced to convert to Islam by those ‘Berber fanatics’. Their romance lasts two years, eight months and 28 days and during most nights – in some unusual pillow talk – Ibn Rushd recounts philosophical arguments from his epic dispute with the Muslim theologian al-Ghazālī. Unlike the real Scheherazade, Ibn Rushd tells ‘the story of his mind’ not to save his life, but because, already in his late sixties, he can’t satisfy the sexual appetite of his ‘always horny’ lover.

A bit of background to the pillow talk: al-Ghazālī wrote The Incoherence of the Philosophers at the end of the 11th century, a polemic arguing that although reason can guide us in logic, mathematics and the natural sciences, it can’t provide definitive answers to ultimate metaphysical questions. Al-Ghazālī charges the philosophers with subscribing to three doctrines that put them outside the bounds of Islam – among them that the world is eternal rather than created and that there is no resurrection of the dead (immortality is intellectual not physical). About a century later Ibn Rushd wrote The Incoherence of the Incoherence, defending reason against al-Ghazālī’s doubts and arguing that reason’s teachings never contradict true religion. The debate between al-Ghazālī and Ibn Rushd is one of the most intriguing of the Middle Ages, but it is also so technical that even seasoned scholars risk falling asleep over it. But that’s not how Rushdie’s Ibn Rushd gets ‘off the hook’. His young companion is actually turned on by the nocturnal philosophical recitations. More than to his body she’s drawn to his mind.

As Rushdie imagines them, Ibn Rushd is a medieval champion of Enlightenment and al-Ghazālī ‘the greatest scourge of philosophy’ of all time. Since al-Ghazālī’s ideas ‘inherit the kingdom’ in the Islamic world, Muslim fanaticism has destroyed Muslim rationalism. Luckily Ibn Rushd’s ideas fall on fertile ground in Europe, where his commentaries on Aristotle become ‘the cornerstones of the infidels’ godless philosophy, called saecularis’. For Rushdie, then, Ibn Rushd and al-Ghazālī function as the intellectual progenitors of the two sides battling each other in today’s war on terror: the secular West and religious fanatics.

Rushdie also throws in plenty of magic. Ibn Rushd’s lover turns out to be not in fact a crypto-Jewish girl but a ‘jinnia’, a female jinn, called Dunia. The jinn – best known in the West as genies trapped in bottles or lamps who grant extravagant wishes on their release – go back to pre-Islamic folklore and have a place in the Quran between humans and angels. There are several jinn in The Arabian Nights (though ‘Aladdin’, the best-known jinn story thanks to Disney, is actually a fake, smuggled in by Antoine Galland, the 18th-century French translator of The Arabian Nights). In Rushdie’s version of the mythology the jinn are made of smokeless fire (if they’re male) or fireless smoke (if they’re female), move faster than light, have no form of their own but can take on various appearances (that of a 16-year-old girl, for example). Most of the characters in the novel are jinn or human-jinn hybrids; all jinn are capricious, some are amoral, some good, some evil. They also have magical powers with which they intervene in human affairs. Their lives are endless, but terribly tedious, so they’re fascinated by the human struggle to make the most of the short time between birth and death. Their other source of entertainment is incessant, amazing sex, a feature of jinn life that has no basis in The Arabian Nights or elsewhere but which Rushdie stresses repeatedly.

Being ‘spectacularly fertile’, Dunia gives birth to dozens of children by Ibn Rushd, and their descendants disperse all over the world, but particularly to North America, where the story resumes in the present shortly after a devastating storm, caused by jinn reopening the ‘wormholes’ between Fairyland and the human world, has hit New York. The wormholes had been sealed for more than eight hundred years and with their reopening all the jinns’ ‘pent-up creative and destructive power’ is unleashed, wreaking ‘miracles or havoc’ in the world, leading to a global state of being that Rushdie calls ‘the strangenesses’. Human beings realise ‘that the world [has] become absurd, and that … the governing principles of reality’ are no longer valid. To illustrate the way the categories of ordinary and extraordinary have collapsed into one another Rushdie piles up Surrealist references: citizens in a French town turn into rhinoceroses (Ionesco), a Belgian man sees the back of his head reflected in a mirror (Magritte), a Russian official watches his nose walking around St Petersburg by itself (Gogol), and so on. Most evocative is the disruption of gravity: people start levitating as in Golconda, another Magritte painting, ‘in which men in overcoats, wearing bowler hats, hang in the air’.

Meanwhile, Ibn Rushd and al-Ghazālī have been resurrected as ghosts. Al-Ghazālī summons the Grand Ifrit Zumurrud, the most powerful of the dark jinn, whom he once released from a bottle without cashing in on his wishes. While Rushdie’s medieval al-Ghazālī was the intellectual father of fanaticism, his 21st-century ghost is modelled on Osama bin Laden and he knows what he wants: he commands Zumurrud to bring terror to Western civilisation. Luckily, Ibn Rushd’s ghost is there to stop Zumurrud and his cohort: he tells Dunia to reassemble their offspring, reveal their jinn powers to them, and strike back to save humankind. The stage is set for what Rushdie calls the War of the Worlds, a war that – to drum the reference home – lasts two years, eight months and 28 days. Zumurrud sets up his headquarters in the land of ‘A’, a stand-in for Afghanistan, and forges an alliance with the ‘Swots’, a stand-in for the Taliban, the masters of ‘the art of forbidding things’, including ‘painting … music … hashish … elections … pleasure … women’s rights’ and much besides. One of Zumurrud’s associates becomes ‘a giant sea-monster’ that swallows the Staten Island ferry; another inhabits the body of a Jewish finance mogul and creates chaos on the stock market. Zumurrud himself, inspired by the Swots, embarks ‘on a wild international spree of decapitations, crucifixions and stonings’.

Meanwhile Dunia heads a ‘raggle-taggle brigade’ that includes a gardener struck by the disruption of gravity who can no longer get his feet on the ground, a femme fatale and murderer, a struggling graphic novelist, a billionaire heiress, and a pompous composer and atheist. Before leading them into battle she tries to persuade Zumurrud to abandon his dastardly scheme by inviting her fellow jinnias to subject him to a ‘sex boycott’. In Lysistrata this brings about the end of the Peloponnesian War but the dark jinn continue massacring with even greater ferocity, which prompts Rushdie to claim that ‘terrorism’ is the vocation of men who are ‘either virgins or unable to find sexual partners’ and whose ‘frustration’ finds ‘its release in rage and assaults’. Giving them ‘willing sexual partners’, Rushdie argues, will make them lose ‘interest in suicide belts, bombs and the virgins of heaven’ – a textbook example of what Pankaj Mishra has called the ‘genitals-centric explanation’ of radical Islam.

Rushdie presents his version of The Arabian Nights as the founding legend of the new civilisation that will emerge after the apocalyptic battle between good and evil. In this civilisation Ibn Rushd finally defeats al-Ghazālī in line with the view of progress Rushdie attributes to him: ‘The battle between reason and superstition may be seen as mankind’s long adolescence, and the triumph of reason will be its coming of age.’ Never too shy to put himself in illustrious company (‘Joseph Anton’ was the codename he adopted, aligning himself with Conrad and Chekhov, after Khomeini’s fatwa), Rushdie seems to want his novel to be a future Iliad, but with a clearer moral: ‘the use of religion as a justification for repression, horror, tyranny and even barbarism,’ he writes, ‘led in the end to the terminal disillusion of the human race with the idea of faith.’ Once ‘fear was overcome … men and women were able to set God aside, as boys and girls put down their childhood toys.’

Rushdie’s ‘strangenesses’ are a physical manifestation of what he sees as the moral confusion of our time. It appears that we have lost our bearings in moral space as we would lose them in physical space if gravity stopped working. The main reason, of course, is the upsurge of religious fanaticism, but he also has in mind the dizzying rate of technological innovation, climate change, economic crises and so on. These are obviously matters of concern, but have they turned our moral world upside down to the point of justifying Rushdie’s recourse to all that jinn magic? I’d suggest that we live in a time of relative moral clarity compared, let’s say, to what Eric Hobsbawm called the ‘Age of Catastrophe’ – the period in Europe between 1914 and 1950 that brought a sense of moral collapse and, along with it, the deep sense of absurdity captured by philosophers and artists from Camus to Beckett.

It’s clear that Rushdie identifies with Ibn Rushd. In his memoir, also called Joseph Anton, he explains that his father, Anis, replaced his cumbersome string of last names – Khwaja Muhammad Din Khaliqi Dehlavi – with the simple Rushdie ‘because of his admiration for Ibn Rushd’, whom he saw ‘at the forefront of the rationalist argument against Islamic literalism’. This name, Rushdie says, was ‘the first gift he received from his father’, a gift whose value he only came to understand when Khomeini called for his assassination after the publication of The Satanic Verses:

From beyond the grave his father had given him the flag under which he was ready to fight, the flag of Ibn Rushd, which stood for intellect, argument, analysis and progress, for the freedom of philosophy and learning from the shackles of theology, for human reason and against blind faith, submission … and stagnation. Nobody ever wanted to go to war, but if a war came your way, it might as well be the right war, about the most important things in the world, and you might as well … be called ‘Rushdie’, and stand where your father had placed you, in the tradition of … Ibn Rushd.

So it’s not surprising to find explicit references to Rushdie himself in the novel, as when he contrasts Ibn Rushd with the original Scheherazade: her ‘stories saved her life, while his put his life in danger’. For Rushdie the conflict between Ibn Rushd and al-Ghazālī is re-enacted in his own clash with Khomeini and radical Islam.

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Unfortunately, Rushdie’s portrait of al-Ghazālī as the intellectual father of Muslim fanaticism is way off the mark. Yes, al-Ghazālī is more sceptical than Ibn Rushd about the power of reason, but the alternative he proposes is a Sufi path, culminating in the ‘passionate love’ (‘ishq) of God through which ‘things become visible that the intellect cannot see.’ Yes, he condemned some philosophical doctrines as ‘unbelief’ but at the same time he accepted most Islamic philosophy. Since he was revered as one of the greatest Muslim theologians, his influence led to the integration of philosophy, from logic to metaphysics, into the curriculum of the madrasas, giving rise in the Muslim East to a continuous engagement with philosophy up to today. This is especially true for Iran, where in the 17th century Mulla Sadra created a synthesis of the medieval intellectual legacy which soon became the national philosophy, widely studied by scholars, including the Ayatollah Khomeini. Thanks to al-Ghazālī, then, the philosophical tradition Ibn Rushd belongs to is most alive in present-day Iran.

The portrayal of Ibn Rushd is wayward too, beginning with Rushdie’s claim that he was a champion of ‘liberal ideas’. A cursory look at the history of philosophy from Plato to Heidegger shows that the philosophers of the past were rarely liberals. Ibn Rushd sits squarely in the Platonic camp: he considered the Republic the authoritative text on political philosophy, wrote a commentary on it, and advocated a benevolent dictatorship of philosopher-prophets who guide citizens to virtue. To be sure, Ibn Rushd had misgivings about the Islamic society he lived in: he regrets that it falls short of Plato’s ideal state, which he saw most perfectly embodied in early Islam under Muhammad and the Rashidun, the four ‘rightly guided’ caliphs who succeeded the Prophet. He would, no doubt, have had misgivings about present-day Islamic societies as well but he would feel more at home in modern Tehran than in New York, or any Western liberal democracy for that matter – those ‘ships of fools’, as Plato puts it in the Republic, where the sailors are in charge and not the captain. Like all members of the falsafa tradition, Ibn Rushd was an intellectual elitist: most human beings aren’t intelligent enough to grasp the truth and live a well-ordered life on their own. The real Ibn Rushd never claimed that humankind evolves from childish faith to grown-up reason. Lessing in the 18th and Auguste Comte in the 19th century held this kind of secularised Christian providentialism, but for Ibn Rushd human beings, with few exceptions, will always remain children as far as their intellectual capacities are concerned.

This has important consequences for his interrelated theories of art and religion. Like Rushdie, Ibn Rushd takes good art to be the outcome of the union of fantasy and reason, but he conceives this union very differently. A true prophet, according to Ibn Rushd, must be an accomplished philosopher. He must also have a vivid imagination so that he can translate philosophical insights into parables and laws that make them accessible to non-philosophers and direct them to virtue. The model work of art for Ibn Rushd is the Quran, which he takes to be a philosophy book for children: it represents metaphysical and moral truths by means of metaphors – angels in human form, the story of Adam and Eve. This is the kind of art that Ibn Rushd thinks Plato would allow in a well-ordered state. By contrast, art that fails to educate and instil virtue – art, in other words, that fantasy produces without the guidance of reason – must be banned. Ibn Rushd explicitly mentions folk stories about demons and jinn: believing that such beings ‘cause walls to tumble upon people … that they see but cannot be seen, that they exist wherever they wish, that they are clothed in whatever form they wish … will implant … fear’ in young people and prevent them from becoming courageous guardians of the state. If it were up to Ibn Rushd, Rushdie’s books would be banned, to the extent that they extol ‘sensual pleasures’ or other things Ibn Rushd considers morally corrupting.

The greatest irony of Rushdie’s misrepresentation is that the historical Ibn Rushd harshly condemns intellectuals who disturb the social peace by provoking pious Muslims. Time and again he chastises theologians whose interpretations confuse common believers and undermine their literal understanding of the Quran. Although he believed that the Quran has an allegorical interpretation in line with philosophy, he firmly opposed disclosing it to the common people. In this sense he was a much stricter literalist than al-Ghazālī. So imagine his dismay had he come across The Satanic Verses. It is much easier to picture Ibn Rushd signing Khomeini’s fatwa than lifting a finger in Rushdie’s defence. When scores of writers protested against conferring the PEN Freedom of Expression Award on Charlie Hebdo last year, Rushdie tweeted: ‘Pussies.’ Had he had a chance to meet the historical Ibn Rushd – through one magic channel or another – he would have treated him to much harsher expletives.